Wenceslao: The Rappler case

THE Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has revoked the certificate of incorporation of Rappler Inc. and Rappler Holdings Corp. that run the online media entity Rappler for supposedly violating the foreign equity restriction imposed by the Constitution, specifically on mass media. The decision, though, is not yet executory and Rappler can still seek relief from the courts. But the ruling can be likened to a sword hanging over Rappler’s head.

“The foreign equity restriction is very clear. Anything less than one hundred percent Filipino control is a violation. Conversely, anything more than exactly zero percent foreign control is a violation,” the SEC decision said.

Rappler had admitted having as investors, through Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), foreign entities Omidyar Network and North Base Media. But Rappler clarified that what is involved is mainly financial investment and the two foreign entities “neither get voting rights on the Board nor have a say in the management or day-to-day operations of the company.” SEC apparently doesn’t believe that.

Rappler has said it would exhaust all legal remedies available to it, which means to let the courts decide on the matter. So let us leave that to the lawyers.

The SEC came up with the ruling following President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) in July when he lambasted media entities that he deemed critical to his administration like Rappler, ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI). Pro-Duterte bloggers and trolls in social media have also gotten into the habit of attacking and threatening reporters of these media entities, including Rappler’s Pia Rañada.

Which invites the question of whether the president’s assault on these media entities partly influenced the SEC’s decision, something that would make the ruling worrisome for the other media entities in the country. Consider that earlier, PDI was also shaken by an ownership change from the Prieto family to a supposedly pro-Duterte businessman Ramon Ang. Meanwhile, ABS-CBN’s petition for the renewal of its franchise, which expires in 2020, is pending in Congress.

This has some sectors condemning the SEC move as an attempt to suppress press freedom, a Marcosian tactic to quell dissent. “It’s a move straight out of the dictator’s playbook,” said opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros. But presidential spokesperson Harry Roque downplayed the SEC ruling. “It is not about the infringement on the freedom of the press. No one is above the law. Rappler has to comply,” he said.

Of course, the Duterte administration can find ways to sugarcoat its schemes. The PDI ownership shift does look like an innocent financial deal. Rappler may have erred in its effort to raise revenues. But that both are presidential targets needs to be factored there. Which brings me to a point I raised earlier about the bureaucracy and supposedly independent institutions being used as instruments to implement questionable and objectionable schemes. They are helping destroy democracy in this country.
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